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Good news, bad news from Legislature for Austin

Wednesday, May 31, 2023 by Jo Clifton

For the city of Austin, the just-ended 88th regular legislative session offered both good news and disappointments, as outlined in a lengthy memo from Brie Franco, the city’s intergovernmental relations officer. On Tuesday, as her team was getting ready to monitor the special session Gov. Greg Abbott called to deal with property taxes and border security, Franco noted six pieces of legislation that will likely have a negative impact on the city. Among those are:

Senate Bill 2038, which authorizes property owners in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction to force the city to release the ETJ by petition or election. Because the term “area” was not defined in the bill, it seems likely that residents could petition for removal on a lot-by-lot basis, “significantly hindering regional planning efforts for long-term sustainable growth,” Franco wrote. San Antonio and Dripping Springs were exempted from the bill.

House Bill 3053 “requires the city of Austin to hold an election on the question of disannexation,” but only applies to the Lost Creek subdivision. Franco said the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Office was able to provide mitigating amendments, including one that says the legislation does not apply to areas that had no population at the time of annexation. That reduced the number of annexed areas impacted from 20 to 12, she wrote.

Another piece of legislation deemed detrimental to the city of Austin, House Bill 1526, is awaiting the governor’s likely signature. City Council Member Alison Alter told her colleagues during Tuesday’s work session that the bill effectively “guts” the city’s parkland dedication fee ordinance. “It undermines our ability to collect the fees that would actually allow us to purchase the land without a whole lot of bonding to go with it,” she said.

The bill requires the city to designate each area as either suburban, urban or central business district. The appraisal district would be asked to calculate the land values for each district. “Instead of using the correct formula for existing parkland levels of service, parkland dedication would be determined and satisfied by the amount of the maximum fee that can be imposed under the bill. Landowners may request a determination from the city of the required dedication amount and, if the city fails to respond within 30 days, the city may not require a parkland dedication or charge a fee in lieu of dedication,” according to Franco. Cities will still be able to impose parkland dedication fees for single-family or duplex uses, but not for multifamily and hotel-motel construction. Franco noted that she and her staff attempted to secure a floodplain exemption, which won’t have helped the city calculating higher fees, but neither of the sponsors, Rep. Cody Harris and Sen. Bryan Hughes, would accept that change.

Every major city in the state has cause for concern over House Bill 2127, dubbed the Death Star bill by opponents because it would preempt city regulations in multiple areas.

House Bill 14 and House Bill 3699 could both cause considerable headaches for city building regulators and development managers. The first of these bills directs the city to allow third-party reviews and inspections by reviewers the city may consider unqualified for the job. According to Franco, the bill would allow outside reviewers to pass judgment on permits, plans, plants and inspections. “Further, the bill requires City Councils to consider appeals of any adverse permitting decision, potentially creating a significant burden due to time required to manage appeals process.”

City employees are concerned that HB 3699 would “severely limit the city’s completeness check process, which will negatively impact the city’s ability to review subdivision applications for compliance with applicable regulations. Among other things, the conference committee report adopted new language that would prohibit the city from requiring any type of document or analysis as part of prerequisites prior to an applicant submitting an application unless it is specifically allowed by state law.” For example, the city would not be able to require floodplain models, environmental resource inventories, slope maps and cut & fill exhibits,” Franco wrote.

But there were some bright spots. Any number of bills died in committee or failed to make it out of the House in time for passage. This includes at least six bills attacking the city’s governance of Austin Energy. A bill by former Council Member and current state Rep. Ellen Troxclair to prevent protection of Ashe juniper trees did not make it through the process. Ashe junipers, known colloquially as cedar trees, are the primary habitat of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, so legislators got an earful about the trees from bird lovers.

Of course, the city and the Austin Transit Partnership were relieved that the bill that would have required another election on the city’s new rail system failed to make it through the Legislature. House Bill 3899 died on a point of order from Rep. John Bucy of Austin.

Franco noted that both houses approved legislation to shore up the city’s retirement system. Senate Bill 1444, which deals in large part with actuarial issues, “was drafted with the joint support of both the city of Austin and the (board of the retirement system),” Franco wrote.

Under House Bill 5012, the city is now authorized to set up a project finance zone within three miles around the Austin Convention Center. Within that zone, the city can dedicate increased state hotel occupancy taxes and taxes on sales of mixed beverages to finance convention center improvements. The city can also collect 100 percent of the state sales tax and Hotel Occupancy Tax during the first 10 years after a new hotel is opened within 1,000 feet of the convention center.

The “Save Muny” bill, House Bill 2867 by local state Rep. Donna Howard, will extend the life of the Save Historic Muny District around the golf course until May 31, 2025.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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